When I think of a tavern, I think of a kind of place that’s dark, dank and ancient. Something cave-like. I think of establishments in European basements. I think of smoke-filled bars in the rough part of town with Harleys parked out front and gruff men wearing tattoos, leather and red bandanas.
When I think of a tavern, I do not think of good food. I hardly think of food, at all.
The Tavern at Princeville by Roy Yamaguchi on Kauai’s North Shore is not like any tavern I know. (Disclosure: I am not an expert on taverns, mind you.)
It’s located in tony Princeville, the posh part of the island, and is found inside a golf course club house. There’s draft beer and bottled beer but no bikers. During the day, instead of motorcycles, you’ll find golf bags parked out front.
My husband and I arrived five minutes late for our 7:15 p.m. reservation. But that wasn’t a problem. No long line snaked out the front door. No one, server or waiting guests, hovered over our table, urging us to sit, order, gulp down our food.
Inside, floor-to-ceiling windows and overly bright track lighting left no corner in the dark. I looked around. The décor wasn’t much. But what can you do with no wall space in a giant cavernous room? Roy had painted the small bit of wall space there was, covered the ceramic tile floor with carpet and installed wooden tables finished with a dark stain. I noted a lounge area at the entrance with stuffed leather sofa and chairs in which you can sink; however, not a dent was left in the cushions from where others had waited for a table when we went last Friday to celebrate our 22nd wedding anniversary. Some day.
With little fanfare, The Tavern, as they call themselves, opened in mid-September in the midst of ongoing renovations at the clubhouse of the Prince Golf Course. There was no advertising blitz. No grand opening. You won’t find mention of the restaurant on the official Roy’s website, not even their Facebook page.
We had made a reservation—not that we needed to. Not yet. The majority of tables were filled, including the long booths serving as a divider in the center of the room, with familiar faces—even a world-champion, home-grown surfer and his very pregnant wife. It felt like an enclave of North Shore folk, and it was. I spotted not a single visitor. That will change.
At the far end of the restaurant, a bar with the obligatory, overhead television aired some sports event. From our table across the room, I couldn’t hear a single cheer or jeer. A few people bellied up to the bar, but I didn’t see a tattoo or red bandana, not a one.
We started with a bowl of Crispy Calamari with Spiced Yuzu Aioli ($13), per our waiter Darron’s recommendation, and it was just that, crispy. And good.
The hubs ordered a Guiness ($6), and I tried a glass of The Tavern Red ($6.50) bottled exclusively for Roy by Gary Burke of Costa de Oro in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. It was a blend of syrah, shiraz, pinot noir and some grape foreign to my ears. I can still taste it today, how the back of my tongue came alive as the wine slid over the spicy aioli sauce lingering in my mouth. I’d go back just for that combination.
Darron hauled—and I do mean hauled—over the list of specials on a roving five-foot-tall chalk board. “Where’s the butterfish?” I asked.
“No butterfish,” Darron said.
“What about the chocolate soufflé?” my husband asked.
“No chocolate soufflé?” Darron said.
“So, this really isn’t a Roy’s, is it?” I asked.
“No, it isn’t,” Darron said.
It was, he informed us, a place that Roy created—the one and only of its kind—that makes rustic, comfort food. “The kind of food Roy likes to eat.” (You mean he doesn’t like to eat off the Roy’s menu? He doesn’t like the butterfish? Maybe, after dozens years, he’s sick of it.) That accounts for the Buttermilk Fried Chicken with sautéed kale and mashed potatoes ($18) and his father’s favorite, the Tavern Beef Stew with buttered noodles, carrots and potatoes ($18).
Speaking of kale, Darron pointed out the window. Some 200 yards away, he said, they grew all their own greens. Like many other restaurants around Kauai, The Tavern has jumped on the locavore wagon. They endorse the farm-to-table movement. Whatever they do not grow, they source locally, when possible.
According to Darron, the chef told the wait staff earlier in the evening that the menu was 92% local. I found that statistic a little hard to believe with the calamari, New Zealand opah, King salmon and jumbo shrimp on the menu. But there were also short ribs, Portuguese sausage and burgers. The menu is categorized this way: Beginnings; From the Garden; Flatbreads, Burgers and More; Tavern Classics; Meats; Sides; and Save Room.
For dinner, my husband ordered a 16-ounce Grilled Ribeye Steak ($36). I violated my usual rule to never order anything my husband makes at home and selected off the rolling blackboard—Blackened Island Ahi ($34) served over mashed potatoes and with a radish salad, three grilled Jumbo shrimp and tomatillo sauce on the side. The result: Husband was quite pleased. I was happy—the fish was good and cooked to order—but I was not raving. And that’s just fine. The point is: My husband didn’t have to cook.
We saved room for The Tavern Pie ($7) and Warm Olive Oil Chardonnary Cake ($8) but neither compared to the Chocolate Souffle at the Roy’s restaurant in Poipu.
The true review, I think, of this restaurant is that in the ensuing week since our visit, I keep thinking about the place. I think about what I will order next time—for sure the wine and maybe the Macadamia Nut Pesto, Tomato & Olive Flatbread ($12). Or maybe the Dungess Crab & Artichoke Flatbread ($15). I keep thinking how The Tavern is a place I’d like to frequent. A place to hang out with friends.
But I do have a warning to issue: If you are saving a Roy’s gift card in your wallet for a special occasion, you will NOT be able to cash it in here. Last week, I wrote about finding a Roy’s gift card worth $125 in an old purse and, interestingly, our bill totaled $125.08. Unfortunately, the computer system at The Tavern couldn’t “read” my card. The manager tried to explain that this was Roy’s restaurant and not a Roy’s restaurant. It seemed to all make sense to him, but it felt to me like Roy was just putting my money in his left pocket instead of his right. Too bad. It left a funny taste in my mouth when we walked away, but we still left our waiter a 20% tip—Darron’s a good guy.